Cilla Snowball: The new boss of AMV

As the new boss of AMV, Cilla Snowball is the senior woman in British advertising. But she's not too grand to come downstairs in person and welcome Ian Burrell
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In the fashionable bars of Noho and Fitzrovia - the West End districts that make up London's adland - the whisper of the name "Snowball" is unlikely to get the barman reaching for his bottle of Warninks.

Cilla Snowball, a slight woman with a ready smile, is the talk of the British advertising industry, having risen this month to become chairman of its biggest and most powerful group. "I've now got used to the initial reaction over my name," she says, "which is always one of unrestrained laughter. People don't hesitate to laugh in your face." Snowball, who is 47, grew up in Staffordshire as Cilla Chadwick, then married adman Geoff Snowball. "The Americans think I've invented it. They can't believe that it's a real name. I don't know if they invent their names but everyone thinks I'm shallow enough to have invented mine."

She may share a name with a popular Seventies cocktail (one part advocaat, two parts lemonade and a dash of lime cordial) but she holds the accounts for Guinness, Famous Grouse, Pepsi and Tropicana juice. Not to mention overseeing some of the most memorable and long-running campaigns in modern British advertising, for The Economist (latest tagline: Sparks & Mensa), Sainsbury's (Jamie Oliver) and Walkers crisps (Gary Lineker).

Her agency is currently celebrating having made the world's best ad of 2005: the spectacular Guinness advert "noitulovE" ("evolution" backwards). Shot over a week in Iceland by director Danny Kleinman, it maps the progress of humankind, in reverse, from drinking the black stuff in the pub to an icy prehistoric version of Planet of the Apes.

But when the ad was given the coveted Grand Prix at the Cannes International Advertising Festival last month, the agency's head was not on the Côte d'Azur to pick it up. Snowball was back in the office, leading a successful pitch to create the latest version of the already memorable BBC2 idents. "I think the best people in our business are practitioners," she says of her hands-on role. "I don't think you can do the job if you're sitting in the corner of an office not engaging with the product or the clients and making a difference."

Cilla Snowball is definitely a people person. She comes downstairs to reception and personally escorts The Independent back to her sixth floor eyrie, with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the rooftops of Marylebone village on the edge of the West End. But perhaps she does this only because we have met before. On one fateful occasion - the recollection of which she still winces over - Snowball marched down to reception before enquiring of a VIP oil company client whether he was her waiting cab driver.

She arrived at Abbott Mead Vickers in 1992, joining an agency that was founded by famed creative David Abbott in 1977. One of the other founders, Peter Mead, turned her down without so much as an interview, shortly after she elected on a career in advertising after reading French at the University of Birmingham. She managed to obtain a traineeship at Allen, Brady & Marsh. "I was working on British Rail in the days of 'This is the Age of the Train'. That's very ageing ... don't laugh!"

During nine years at the influential Ogilvy & Mather, she cut her teeth on Boneo dog biscuits (she recalls a doggy taste test, filmed for a spot on Yorkshire and Tyne Tees TV) as well as working on the Unilever and Rowntree accounts.

By the time she reached AMV, where she became the agency's first "new business director", it already had long established relationships with such premier clients as Volvo, Dulux and The Economist. But the organisation was a fraction of the operation it is now, ranking only 11th in the UK. Since Snowball's arrival the agency has, well, snowballed. For the past decade it has been Britain's biggest, and her title has morphed from new business director, to head of client service, to deputy MD, to MD, to CEO, to chairman and finally this month to group chairman.

In this last role she oversees a staff of 1,100, including the 300-strong AMV team, the contract publishers Redwood - producers of a host of company magazines, including those for Harvey Nichols, Marks & Spencer, BT and American Express - the PR agency Fishburn Hedges and the multi-award-winning direct marketing operation Proximity.

How have things changed since she arrived at AMV nearly 15 years ago? "There were a lot more people then. A lot more people engaged in doing the same task, probably in a very inefficient way looking back on it now. But at the time it was very focused, energetic, great fun, and lots of interesting and exciting work was developed."

Part of the reason that there are fewer people around is that Snowball was obliged to lay off 28 of them during cuts she imposed shortly after taking the helm of the ad agency. "We had to make our first redundancies, right in the middle of recession and downturn. Making redundancies was an inevitable but extremely tough moment both for me and the business because it's a family here. I didn't enjoy that process much," she says. "I went about it by doing everything else that we had to do to make ourselves more efficient first. By cutting back, cutting out anything that wasn't human first."

Streamlining has been necessary in an industry that has taken longer than most to get over the Eighties excesses. She recalls that, two decades ago, Saatchi & Saatchi was Britain's biggest agency, with nearly treble the staff that AMV has today. "That shows the size and shape of the industry has changed - but the fun and rewards haven't," she adds, characteristically and steadfastly upbeat.

Snowball refuses to sign up to the widely held view that London advertising is creatively not what it was and she cites the recent British successes in Cannes. "London agencies had a better showing than they had previously. We emerged as the second-most awarded agency in the world, after TBWA Paris."

In a feature for a jobs supplement in The Daily Telegraph last year, in which she set out her typical week, she gave an indication of her extraordinary work rate and ability to juggle multiple responsibilities. "Huge swim followed by morning of internal meetings, including a buck-up chat with a talented manager whose performance has gone off the boil..." runs one entry. By Saturday, she is working as "taxi driver, chef, laundry maid and fashion adviser" to her three children, now aged 17, 15 and 12 and trusted barometers for the impact of AMV commercials.

Another article in the Telegraph, this time for a health feature, again refers to 11-hour days but quotes her as saying: "The difference between us and some other companies is that we are all happily busy and stressed. Long hours here can be exhilarating rather than unhealthy. There is nothing quite like the excitement of meeting a deadline. Then it is flowers all round."

Lounging around with a pint of Guinness might be AMV's award-winning representation of the highest form of life but it's not going to get you far on the company career ladder. Indeed, the agency has built itself a reputation for embracing healthy lifestyles, founded on its dogged refusal to accept any work from tobacco companies. Since then it has produced striking anti-smoking work for the Department of Health. (A poster with a crushed cigarette and the slogan "Giving up is hard but it won't kill you" hangs alongside other AMV favourites on Snowball's office wall.) It also works on safe driving campaigns and on responsible drinking work for Diageo, parent company of Guinness, Johnnie Walker and Captain Morgan.

Which made it all the harder for Snowball when she was obliged to stand before a committee of MPs in 2003 and fend off accusations that her company's promotion of snack food was contributing to obesity in children. At one stage of the hearing the MPs zeroed in on a private media brief for Wotsits, part of the Walkers crisps range which AMV advertises on behalf of client PepsiCo. The brief said children should be encouraged to believe "Wotsits are for me. I am going to ... pester mum for them when she next goes shopping". Cilla Snowball responded by saying "the wording was unfortunate and we won't do it again". One newspaper headline the next day recorded: "Ad agency apologises over child 'pester power' brief."

Snowball's own take on the hearing is a little different. "It was an unusual experience and a challenging one but one I stepped forward to do willingly and enthusiastically," she says. "It was important for us to establish what kind of advertising we produce and the role of advertising in effecting brand preference."

For the past 10 years, AMV has worked with Gary Lineker to promote Walkers in what is the longest-running celebrity campaign in British advertising. The agency is in its 18th year with its Economist campaign and the sixth with Jamie Oliver and Sainsbury's. A long-term approach has served AMV well.

Snowball says: "I'm a strong believer in campaigns rather than individual, one-off executions." She notes that the current Walkers campaign has kept faith with Lineker while reflecting concerns over diet by highlighting salt and fat content. "It's possible to take a campaign idea and keep it fresh and relevant over time," she says.

Snowball is sitting at the head of a creative centre of excellence but she keeps one eye on the bottom line. "Our work has to be judged in terms of its creativity but also its commercial success," she says. "We've won a Grand Prix but equally in the last month we've won four marketing effectiveness awards on Make Poverty History, Sainsbury's, Walkers and Famous Grouse. It's evidence of our creativity but also our effectiveness in the marketplace and both are important."

The Sainsbury's campaign, for which AMV was forced to re-pitch last year, was so successful that chief executive Justin King said he was "sure the impact of [advertising campaign] Try Something New Today has been material" to delivering a million extra customers to the supermarket chain over six months.

In moving to group chairman of AMV, Snowball succeeds the much-liked advertising titan Michael Baulk, who - after 20 years - was cheered out of the agency by colleagues dressed in his working uniform of white shirt, jeans and red jumper slung around the shoulders. As Snowball moved to take over she was told by a senior colleague: "Don't try to follow in Michael's shoes. Get your own Jimmy Choos."

Snowball, who likes her designer clothing and already has her Choos, accepted the advice. "My job is to stimulate that group and make some decisions of my own about the way we work. Fundamentally every thing starts and finishes with the quality of work."

Her task is to get AMV to work as an integrated operation deploying all its various skills in advertising, design, direct marketing, public relations and publishing. She hopes clients will employ a member of the AMV family in all these categories. "I've yet to meet a client for whom integration isn't important," she says. "Brands need to communicate with a consistent voice. It's a very cluttered, noisy world out there for consumers with the fragmentation of media. Brand consistency across channels is important, whether you are online, in store, watching television or receiving something through the mail."

Snowball is a great networker and a past president of the Women's Advertising Club of London. She says being female has never been a barrier in her career path. "For me, thankfully the gender issue hasn't come up. It's never been a handicap or hindrance and I've never felt any sort of prejudice against me."

Snowball's worry - if it is one - is more about being the best than the biggest. "Being the biggest is a consequence of hard work and great work." People might laugh at her name - but in every other respect Snowball is someone to be taken very seriously.

That Guinness ad: How Snowball's AMV scooped the prize

The director of the Cannes Grand Prix-winning Guinness commercial noitulovE, Daniel Kleinman explains the ad:

"I've been in contention for the Grand Prix a few times, and been pipped to the post by just a couple of votes, apparently. So it was nice that the jury was sensible for once. Cannes is all about having a broad appeal, and this is an easy story to follow without dialogue. The jury tends to like jokes, and this one's got bravado, it's got brio, if you know what I mean.

Taking on Guinness, with its history of famous advertising, is a challenge, but I thought the idea was strong from the start. If you look back, the better Guinness ads have a wryness to them. This is more overtly comic. It's interesting to tell a little story with humour and special effects, and make it a metaphor for life in general.

I wanted people to get a sense that, in the past, we may have lived in the sea at one time, up trees at another, been in the desert and through the Ice Age. I wanted it to seem as big a journey as possible.

We shot some of the background in Iceland, and the three guys in London.

It's basically saying that we are lucky to be living today because, for millenniums we've had to put up with eating and drinking terrible stuff, and finally we are living in an age when you can get a decent pint. Which is fair enough.

I like the idea that the guys in it were once absurd things - burrowing creatures and weird fish. It isn't meant to be an accurate natural-history documentary, and anyway, every time you hear a theory about evolution they say something different. So, perhaps we were all squirrels at some point. I mean, I like nuts."